At the Climate Change Coaches we help people to have better conversations about the world. We train people in how to engage and motivate themselves and others to act more decisively on the climate crisis. Powerlessness is a big problem here, and by drawing on psychology, we help people to transform that feeling into agency and action. We show people how easy-to-grasp coaching skills can help them to connect better and influence more. We work with organisations that are transforming to meet climate targets, by equipping their staff to support teams through the change. We train activists and social entrepreneurs through their networks to better motivate the public. And in our International Coach Federation accredited programme, we teach professional coaches to tackle these topics in their work. We are a small, Oxford-based company with a global team, training people online all over the world.
Zoe: We combine both coaching and action against climate change together. Charly has experience in coaching, and I have experience in the climate change industry, so our different skills complement each other well. We bring coaching skills into the climate sector. There is a management challenge in trying to achieve ambitious change and this is where coaching skills have a lot to offer in equipping people with a feeling of possibility. To believe that change is actually possible. It all started three years ago. Our first move was in December 2018, we turned up to London’s first zero waste Christmas market in Hoxton with self-made banners and a lot of energy. We offered pop-up coaching to the public to see if we were right that you could coach people on climate change, just like any other subject, and we discovered that you absolutely could.
Charly: We work predominantly with organisations to transform the way they communicate. We are equipping technical people to be able to have more personal conversations. Coaching skills can be really quick-to-grasp, and can be quite simple, but we get feedback that these skills have completely transformed the way people communicate about this issue. For us, the difference is that we teach people to prioritise relationships and understanding someone’s beliefs and concerns, rather than racing in with facts and arguments.
What is your background? What made you decide to get involved in supporting entrepreneurs?
Charly: I started my career in a big multinational charity, however, I struggled with how cumbersome and slow it was because of its size. I started my first business in Sierra Leone, West Africa, because I spotted a need that wasn’t being met. When I returned to the UK, I retrained as a coach and while that was fulfilling, I found myself wanting to focus on having an even bigger systemic impact. In 2016, I had our first child, which I think woke me up to climate change as an issue. My business in Sierra Leone had a social purpose, but until then I hadn’t fully understood the climate crisis. The Climate Change Coaches combines both an environmental and social purpose.
Zoe: I don’t have the same business background as Charly, but I have worked in the climate sector for sixteen years for a large environmental NGO. I remember in 2009 a lot of people started questioning climate science. It was a very sceptical time, and although that is not so much the case today, it made the way people communicate about the topic very data and fact led in response. We wanted to change the way people communicate. A part of it for me as well was that I lost a lot of confidence after having children and taking maternity leave. When I met Charly I got that confidence back. When there are two of you founding a business, it is a lot easier.
Charly: Everyone I know in business wants a co-founder. It can get quite lonely doing this on your own.
What is your definition of entrepreneurship?
Charly: What galvanises me, is seeing a problem that I have the skills to solve, and solving it. I think that is the difference between entrepreneurship and business. Business is often about how you make a profit, which often leads to copying someone else’s model. That is completely okay, because that is how markets are built. But entrepreneurship is striking out, finding the problem, and fixing it. That’s the difference. It is also about building something bigger than yourself. People have started talking about the ‘solopreneur,’ which feels a lot like a sole trader. Being an entrepreneur is more than that; it involves job creation, and value creation beyond the person who started it.
Zoe: It is about seeing an opportunity. I think in the context of a climate crisis and global pandemic, there has been an increased interest in entrepreneurship. I’d like to see that inside organisations too. You can implement an entrepreneurial spirit within organisations. It is not just about start-ups. You can make entrepreneurship look different by embedding entrepreneurial skills. I’m seeing them everywhere now. I think a lot of people get excited by the buzz of the start-up bit, but I would be interested to see if they keep it up. It’s hard work.
How and when did you know your idea was good enough to develop it?
Charly: Once we sold something! Once you start selling, you know someone wants it. We did a lot of market testing however. We did that side of desk because we didn’t want to get funding too early, which could have affected the way we developed the business. So we offered free-workshops in order to find out who loved what we offered, and who just thought it was okay. We defined our audience that way, and then the next task was to know when that audience needed us, because they wouldn’t need us all the time. When you’re pursuing social goals as well as profit, it is also important to understand that what you want for the world and what the world wants doesn’t always fit together. It’s easy to think ‘everyone needs this!’ because you’re purposefully driven, and then sell nothing because your market doesn’t value it, yet. Once we understood who were targeting and what they defined as their problem, we spoke to that audience specifically in a way that made them interested.
Zoe: We also had a lot of conversations. The environmental and business landscape is changing all the time. Nothing is ever static for us, so we have to adapt constantly.
What would you say are the top 3 skills that needed to be a successful entrepreneur? Why?
Zoe: Tenacity, energy and resilience.
Charly: I agree. It is like being one of those weighted-rubber toys that you can keep on hitting down, and yet they always bounce back. It’s also important not to take things too personally. For every ‘yes,’ you get a lot of ‘no’s.
Zoe: This isn’t as obvious, but you have to be able to ask for help.
Charly: Yes, and building on that there has to be a willingness to learn. We would still be where we were three years ago had we not been willing to learn. We constantly ask ourselves what are we not doing and who do we ask about that? It is never satisfying and can be a little frustrating, but it means you are always challenging yourself.
What is your favourite part of being an entrepreneur?
Charly: Getting to make up the rules! Not always hearing “you’re not allowed to do that.” I love the freedom.
Zoe: For me it is the same. Being able to pivot quickly. For example, we have applied to become a B Corporation. That whole process has been a lot quicker and easier without a big weighty organisation behind you with its own rules and regulations. I like the ability to be agile.
What individual, company or organization inspires you most? Why?
Charly: Patagonia. Everything they do lines up with their mission. They also seem like a very laid-back company that does not keep pushing people. As a result, their people are not tired or overworked. I think that is really impressive.
Zoe: I think in my formative years it was the Innocent smoothie brand. When I was in my mid-twenties I found the story of their founders really inspirational. They were one of the first companies to talk to their customers in a chatty way, and broke the mould in the way companies communicate.
If you had 5 minutes with the above individual/ company/organization, what would you want to ask or discuss?
Charly: Scaling. How did they scale, and how did they get over the hump.
Zoe: Same! How did they grow?
What has been your most satisfying or successful moment in business?
Zoe: I am still quite early on in my career in business as I have spent most of my career in an NGO. But I found it really satisfying working on our brand. Making the decisions about what we were saying, and designing the brand. More generally, the freedom we have in our jobs is really satisfying. Charly: I’m never satisfied! However, I wrote a book called ‘Climate Change Coaching: the Power of Connection to Create Climate Action’, which is out this June with Oxford University Press. Writing that, and really creating something tangible and in-depth was very satisfying. I can’t wait to see it in print.
What would you say have been some of your mistakes, failures or lessons learned as an entrepreneur?
Charly: I’ve been guilty of assuming everyone in our team knows what we are doing, and not bringing everyone with me. Everything changes so fast, and especially as we are all remote. I forget we haven’t caught everyone up as we’ve changed strategy or developed new products.
Zoe: Remote working has definitely been a challenge, as well as assuming that the market wants something when it doesn’t. We’ve also learnt that it is important to learn to say no, and to say no to even big companies when the fit with what they want you to do isn’t right.
How have you funded your ideas?
Charly: By re-investing profit mainly because we are not only sustaining a business, but growing one. We applied for a big grant, and were shortlisted, but we were relieved when we didn’t get it. We went into lockdown shortly afterwards and it would have been very hard to spend the funding in time.
Zoe: We also offered a few big contracts, notably the chance to build a MOOC (a massive open online course) but we realised that we wanted to focus on building our own IP. That meant that rather than being paid to build someone else’s course, we invested time and money in building our own, but we owned the final product. Sometimes big contracts can seem tempting, but you have to weigh that up against the time that they take you away from your core mission.
Are there any sector-specific awards/grants/competitions that have helped you?
Zoe: Charly has won a Coaching At Work Magazine Award for ‘Contributions to Climate Change Coaching’, which did not provide us with any funding but has helped us with publicity.
What is good about being an entrepreneur in Oxfordshire? Bad?
Zoe: Oxfordshire has a strong business network. It has a lot of hot desk spaces and incubators, which helps create the feel of being within a business hub.
Charly: I’m on the board of Oxfordshire Business First which is a non-profit that connect businesses together to share insights. When I came back from Sierra Leone I was quite struck by how willing business people are to share their knowledge like that. In Oxford, there is also a huge academic community which enables you to engage in more theoretical discussions about business and climate change. It is amazing what conversations you can have simply over dinner.
If a new entrepreneur or startup came to you looking for entrepreneurship resources, where would you send them?
Charly: Oxfordshire Business First is great for start-ups, and I would also point them to Oxford Brookes, who offer a lot of support for non-students in the wider business community.
Zoe: We would also be happy to talk and share our own experience with any start-ups looking for advice.
Have you faced any challenges as a woman entrepreneur? If so, how have you overcome them?
Charly: I was definitely underestimated in Sierra Leone which often proved to be very useful. I formed a little group with four other women entrepreneurs, and we would come together to share ideas and knowledge in a way that the men didn’t. I have definitely had moments here as a trainer, where as a woman in a room full of men I was looked down on as a ‘little lady’ or expected to be less effective than my male co-facilitator. I would say I haven’t faced huge discrimination however, though perhaps I simply haven’t noticed it.
Zoe: I have at times been treated like a little girl. That is changing now we are not so young, but there are different challenges at different points in life. In the context of the pandemic, I think the problem arose that there was the implication that women would look after the children and keep everything running. This problem was emphasised with the break-down of the usual support systems.
Charly: As a company we make a point of making space for family life. We take August off to acknowledge the school holidays, as well as taking it slower at Easter and Christmas. In order to shift the paradigm, we have to model the behaviours of the new paradigm we want to create. We want to exist in a world where family life isn’t hidden from work life.
What resources would you recommend for other women?
Zoe: The WINS network in Oxford is really active which is run by a coach we know.
Charly: Social Purpose Oxford are a lovely group that meet every month at Tap Social.
How could institutions such as the University of Oxford better support women entrepreneurs?
Zoe: I think the University could do more to open up more physical spaces. Opening up space for people to work alongside each other is a really practical thing to help entrepreneurs hold themselves to account to work. It can be quite a lonely job, so opening up more space for people to network would really help. Also connecting students with businesses to exchange time and experience. The University is in a really good place to open up networking across generations. Most University students are in their early-twenties and I feel that a lot of entrepreneurs have lost touch with that generation. This would be a key-age group for the University to facilitate.
Charly: I think Oxford Brookes University does a great job of networking students with businesses locally – for example inviting business people to run a mock dragons den every year. I find that the University of Oxford does this on a more national and global scale, but I think it is a shame that it doesn’t reach out more locally.
Do you have any advice specifically for other women who want to be entrepreneurs?
Charly: Back yourself. I think a lot of women are quick to say “I don’t know.” There were a lot of things we didn’t know, and we quickly learned that everyone else was just making it up as they went along as well. Mentors have saved me so much grief and potential mistakes. Entrepreneurs really need someone to tell them how they ‘did it’, and you often find that people will do that for the price of a cup of coffee.
Any last words of advice?
Charly: Don’t give up, but keep asking questions. If something isn’t working, don’t hide behind your desk, get out there and ask customers why and what they need instead. You may not need to radically change your product but just change what you say about it.
Zoe: Do something you love. We only have a limited number of hours in the day and days in the year. Do work that inspires and motivates you.